This year, buying a selecting and buying a camcorder is much more confusing than it has ever been in years past. There are a plethora of differing technologies to pick from as well as a bewildering assortment of features and capabilities that need to be examined. It is not easy. I am a pro and I still get confused.

A decade ago, you just had to choose between VHS and 8mm tape formats. If you were a professional – then you had to decide if you wanted the slightly higher quality “prosumer” flavors, i.e. SVHS or Hi8. Still a bit confusing but it was still all videotape.

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As the decade progressed though, more and more consumers made the obvious decision to abandon analog VHS and 8mm and move to digital video. Again, a simple decision, digital was better. However it was still a tape-based format.

Now in the last couple years, the options have exploded. Now there are all kinds of media capture formats to consider. In addition to the good old digital videotape format, we now have camcorders that record video to solid state flash drives, to tiny spinning hard drives, to optical media like DVD. Confusing. Even worse, they all work well.

On top of that, you can now add the high definition options. In addition to a plethora of digital video quality camcorders, now you have to consider a “standard” high definition camcorder or you can opt for a high definition camcorder that’s uses the new AVCHD format.

To make this even more difficult, most of the recording formats are available in both of the HD formats, making this choice quite complicated. On top of that, there is the ongoing choice between a single chip camcorder and a camcorder that uses three sensor chips for recording video.

The good news is that there are not a lot of camcorder makers to choose from and as long as you pick a model from a major brand like Canon, Hitachi, JVC, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony, Samsung, etc, you won’t be disappointed. However, in the new and quickly emerging solid-state, flash memory camcorder market, new manufacturers are poking up their heads with reliable gear as well.

So lets take a quick look at what is out there and what kind of camcorder might work best for you and your family.
DV Camcorders

DV camcorders that record video and audio onto a small DV videotape cartridge have been around for nearly a decade and have matured. They work and are very affordable. If you looking for an inexpensive, easy to use camcorder that allows you to record high quality and also enables you to edit your video on your computer, a standard DV camcorder is still a wonderful option. And, as digital video camcorders are not quite as “sexy” as the newer hard drive, DVD and flash video camcorders, you can get some great deals.

What are the negatives? Even though tape can capture very high quality video and audio, it is still tape and subject to tearing, stretching and flaking. Plus pulling videotape through a camcorder in order to record on it sucks up a lot of battery power. Another minor issue is dew warnings and dirty heads. As tape still needs to be pulled over minuscule video heads inside the camcorder, these can be fouled by dirt, dust and moisture and can cause your camcorder to not work. Easily remedied, it is still an issue that can cause you some pain.

DV also needs to be transferred to a computer to be edited. Unlike the newer capture formats, the video is sent to the computer as a streaming format that needs to become digitized into a digital file before it can be edited. However, many computers include a firewire/1394 video connection and/or video – audio input connectors.

If you already have a computer, and are not planning to upgrade soon, you might want to see what kind of connections your computer has before you buy a new camcorder. Most of the hard drive and flash video camcorders allow you to transfer your video via a standard USB 2.0 connection.
Hard Drive Camcorders

Instead of recording video and audio to a videotape cassette, these types of camcorders record video to a rapidly spinning miniaturized hard disk very similar to what you have in your computer. Most of the hard drive camcorders offer hard drives ranging in capacity between 20 to 40 gigabytes, suitable to recording hours of high quality video and days of lower quality video.

The video is captured as a digital file that can be easily transferred to your computer for editing via a USB cable. This means it is easy to start editing it.

The negative is that the hard drives are not removable. Once they get filled up, you need to transfer the video if you want to record anymore. If you are traveling without a personal laptop or other storage device, this could become a big issue. Another issue is power. Hard drives are complex and fragile electro-mechanical devices that spin and require power. This spinning, like pulling videotape, requires a lot of power form the camcorder batteries.

Another potential issue is that hard drives always crash. Sooner or later, the tiny electromechanical components will die. And if your wonderful video is still on the drive, you may never see it again….

The beauty of hard drive camcorders is the ability to store LOTS of video and to easily transfer that video to a computer for storage and for editing.
DVD Camcorders

Another very interesting flavor of camcorders are those that record directly to a small recordable DVD inside the camcorder. These camcorders enable you to record a scene or event, and then, after finalizing the disk, pop it into any DVD player and watch it back. For that reason, they are very fun and convenient. Plus many of these DVD camcorders include basic video playback editing – you can add in a few simple titles and choose which scenes will play back in what order when connected to a TV set.

However, as with all the formats, there are a few gotchas. If you have a bad disk – which happens from time to time – you’ll never see your recorded video. Also, the disks don’t record a lot of video. I believe most of the recordable DVD disks that will fit in a camcorder will only give you 20 to 30 minutes of recording time tops. However, that can be a good thing, because then your friends and relatives don’t have to sit through hours of boring video. OK, just kidding.

Another negative, especially if you are planning on editing the video or sticking it on the web, is that the transfer and conversion process from DVD video files to digital video files is not simple. You will have to use a video editing program that can convert the DVD’s VOB files to digital AVI or MPEG files that can be used for editing and for web upload.

The final issue, at least to my eyes, is that the video quality doesn’t seem to be as good as what you can capture using either tape based or hard drive based camcorders.
Flash Camcorders

There are an exploding cornucopia of flash based camcorders, of all sizes, shapes, makes and models. Small, compact and usually quite affordable, these camcorders record video and audio to flash memory inside the camcorder. Some of these flash camcorders offer cards that can be removed and then played back in a card reader. Other flash camcorders usually offer a USB connection for transferring the video form the internal memory to the computer. Similar to the hard drive camcorders, once the internal flash memory video is filled, you have to transfer it somewhere if you want to keep on taping. Of course, if you are using removable flash memory cards, you can slide the filled one out and then put a new, empty one in.

So far, I have been very impressed with the cost and ease of use of flash memory camcorders. I have not been as impressed with the actual video and audio quality. Because of the intense compression that is needed to convert the incoming video to a digital format, it often means that the camcorder is only able to capture lower resolution video and audio which won’t look good on a big screen or when you try to edit it on your computer. However, if your end goal is to put these videos online, or to upload to a site like YouTube or Metacafe, this video will work fine.

You need to take a long look at the video quality specifications on these flash camcorders. As you would expect, the very inexpensive ones – under $100 – are basically toys and the video in not something you would want to share. Some say they offer “TV” quality video, while others say VGA, while others are claiming HD quality. In the store, you need to see what the played back video looks like on a BIG screen. They almost all look good on their tiny LCD screens.

Another issue, because of the size and shape of these flash video camcorders, is that audio gets shortchanged. Most have very inexpensive microphones built into the body of the camcorder that cannot capture high quality audio, Even worse, most of these camcorders, unlike many larger hard drive, DVD and tape based camcorders, do not have inputs to attach an external mike or microphone system. You are stuck with the audio that gets recorded via the built-in mike.

However, for ease of use and convenience, these small flash camcorders can’t be beat. My kids LOVE these!
Other issues

In addition to the various formats – DV tape, DVD, hard drive and Flash, there are other challenges.

Do you want to record in High Definition? In all of these capture formats, there also exists HD versions. They are more expensive and because of the bigger file sizes, you will get less recording time per session. Another challenge is editing. Some of these high definition formats use a proprietary codec that is not easily edited. For example, AVC-HD is used by Sony, Canon and Panasonic. Many older software programs cannot handle that format. However, many of the newer video editing programs are including special built-in software that will recognize and open up AVC files for editing. If you plan on shooting AVC HD, and want to edit your videos, make sure your computer system and software can handle it.

Another choice is the number of light sensitive chips sitting behind the lens to capture the video. Most “family” camcorders only have a single chip in the sensor. These work fine. However, the more advanced, pro versions usually have three chips, which provides better color and quality, but costs a lot more. However, there is a trade-out. 3 Chip camcorders don’t usually work as well in low light as one chip camcorders.

Zoom ratios – beware misleading zoom claims. On the larger camcorders – DV tape, DVD and Hard drive, you can find optical zoom ratios of 10 times, 20 times, or even more than 30 times. These are good.

However, ignore digital zoom claims and marketing propaganda. All digital or electronic zoom does is electronically magnify the signal. This makes the picture bigger while at the same time magnifying the noise and static. Once you get past 3x of optical zoom, most images begin to fall apart.
When buying a camcorder, optical zoom is the only number to consider.

A camcorder manufacturer’s advertisements may claim 300 times zoom. This can mean that the camcorder offers 15x optical zoom with 20x digital. Your video will look like trash – just lots of colored pixels.

Read “My Zoom is Bigger than Yours”

On many of the small flash memory camcorders, because of their diminutive shapes, there is not much room to cram in big optical zoom rations. You might get 3x or 5x optical, and then they multiply it electronically.
Audio Input Jack/Accessory Shoe

Finally audio. As touched upon in the flash memory camcorder description, most camcorders, even the larger, more expensive ones, usually have very inexpensive mikes to record sound. As these are all digital camcorders, they are capable of recording very high quality, high fidelity digital audio. But, because of cost, and poor mike placement, most of the times you get only poor sound. If you are serious about recording good sound with your camcorder, you need a camcorder with a separate audio input jack and an external microphone. It is also recommended to look for a camcorder with an accessory shoe for mounting the mike or mike system.

Some camcorders offer a special hot shoe mounting system that enables the external accessory mike to feed the audio signal directly to the recording section. You don’t have to run a cord from he mike to the audio input jack. This is very convenient.
Go Buy Your Camcorder

There are some great deals out there right now for camcorder but you need to make sure you get the most appropriate solution for your personal and family use. There is no point in buying a camcorder and then just having it sit around, unused.